It’s all about the story

Q&A with ice dancers Kseniya Ponomaryova and Oleg Altukhov

By Erin Barney

To casual figure skating fans, ice dancing and pairs routines often appear the same—spins, lifts and dazzling costumes.

But ice dancers aren’t allowed to do showy overhead lifts and throw jumps. Instead, they need to wow fans and judges with their storytelling. Without a real connection to the music and to each other, the dancers won’t receive high scores.

To find that inspiration, partners Kseniya Ponomaryova, 27, and Oleg Altukhov, 32, venture to jazz bars, ballrooms and polka clubs. The next day, they bring that feeling to practice at the Fox Valley Ice Arena in Geneva, Illinois.

It’s paying off: The two – who met on in 2012 – have improved their standing at the U.S. championships each year.

Ponomaryova, born in Ukraine, and Altukhov, born in Russia, are currently ranked 11th in the United States.

After a recent practice, the duo discussed the details of their multifaceted training. Excerpts:

When you met and first skated together, how did you know you were going to work well as a pair?

Ponomaryova: You have your goals, and you have to ask your partner’s goals, and if they meet, [you] can work together.

How do you train to achieve the biggest goal: telling a meaningful story on the ice?

Ponomaryova: Usually when you pick the music, you pick something you already connect with. You try to create your own feeling, and then you have to connect with your partner and show the story. It’s more about the connection between the two of you and how well you create the story together.

Altukhov: Yeah, primarily we pick a piece of music that works for us. It would be hard to skate to something that doesn’t affect us first. Part of it is bringing something of your own to the table, really focusing on how it personally affects you. A lot of it is just training with your coach, and your choreographer, and after a while, there is an emergent quality to it. You put all these things together, and eventually you are able to tell a much better story than say at the beginning of the season.

Has there been a time when you felt you told a very effective story, but the judges didn’t agree?

Altukhov: We try not to focus on that. We try to use each competition as a learning experience to push ourselves forward. We’ve actually gotten a reputation for always advancing. Every time we get a critique, the judges say, “Wow, you’ve really improved.” We really try to show them every time that we’ve progressed since the time before. As long as we can do that, we’re happy.

What about a time when one of you felt a stronger connection to the music than the other?

Altukhov: The Spanish piece [the 2014-15 short program requirement], for example, I had a harder time with it. I had to work with a special teacher who helped adjust some of the choreography and helped me interpret the piece better. If there is a piece you aren’t familiar with, you look up videos to help you understand it, to get its authenticity, but working with a teacher really helps.

Ponomaryova: Yeah, usually we use videos, try to read about it, and really find it’s character inside yourself.

Do you have any routines to bring you to that emotional place right before you get on the ice?

Ponomaryova: We have our warmup together. Then we go over our dance together. But by this time, we already know each other, like what to expect. We try to stay together. It’s important not to go separate ways and do our own thing. It’s really important to stay together so we can work as a team.

Does anything distract you? Nerves?

Altukhov: Nerves are something I used to have a big problem with, but don’t anymore. Basically it’s the feeling of, “Oh, what if I mess up.” The audience can tell right away; the judges can especially tell. It’ll look like you’re just holding back on your skating. You can’t skate like that. You have to attack the performance, which we’ve gotten really good at.

How did you get over those nerves?

Ponomaryova: It’s experience. Your body already knows what to do, so you don’t have to worry about that. You’ve done the program so many times, so you just have to get in the moment and perform your dance. You still have to do some technical things, but we’ve already done those so many times in practice that it’s more about the dance part.

When skating comes to an end for you, would you stick with the dance part of it?

Ponomaryova: Probably something related to performance or dance.

Altukhov: We really enjoy doing what we do. There are some skaters who are nervous about the idea of being out in front of a crowd, but we really enjoy that. We love representing ourselves. We also have a skating channel where we share our skating knowledge on YouTube. We really like interacting with the judges, the audience, performing and telling our stories. After a while, it’s more about enjoying it, so I’d probably do something that allowed me to still share my talents.

Photo at top: Ponomaryova and Altukhov perform their short dance at the Philadelphia Skating Club and Humane Society. (Thomas Stephan/Stephan’s Fine Photography and Video)